There was a time in these here United States of America when you’d order a beer and you had a pretty good idea of what you were getting yourself into. Your options were limited. If you walked into a bar or a liquor store and they had something besides the usual litany of mainstream adjunct lagers, you might luck out and find a quirky craft brew. But more often than not, these were rare and questionable sightings, akin to crazed farmers talking about strange lights in the night sky or stoned hikers swearing they’d witnessed Bigfoot.
Nowadays, we have the opposite problem. Our tap handles are so inundated with aliens and Sasquatch, the missing city of Atlantis, and mythological beasts, it can be difficult to find a normal Tom, Dick or Harry amongst the lineup. If beer and brewing practices had fallen into a sort of conservative rut before the craft beer explosion, it’s been nothing short of unbridled debauchery ever since.
American craft brewers saved beer and revived beer culture not only in this country but around the world, but left unchecked could these mad scientists of brewing just as easily destroy it?
Before we attempt to answer that, let’s take a look at how we got here:
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, breweries like Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Widmer, and Bridgeport were trying to offer an alternative to mass market adjunct lagers. They were hoping to corner a niche market that would be unsatisfied by the homogenized offerings of the largest American brewing companies, and their angle was reintroducing English (and to a lesser extent German) beer styles to American audiences. With the possible exception of Anchor, which had invented up to that point the only authentic American style by way of their Steam beer, a unique lager that could be brewed at higher ale temperatures, most of these brewers weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
Adjustments would have to be made to beer recipes calling for ingredients–be it hops, malted barley, and/or yeast strains–that couldn’t be acquired from Europe, but the general sentiment behind the creation of these beers was that these weren’t new beer styles, they were just forgotten ones to the American audience. Initially, milder offerings like Hefeweizens and Pale Ales were introduced, and then eventually, more aggressively flavored styles like Stouts and India Pale Ales. The goal was both modest and revolutionary at the same time: to replicate classic styles with American ingredients and subtly tweak them for an audience that didn’t know what it had been missing.
What happened was that American audiences, absent from the tradition and history of a German or English or Belgian beer culture, got a glut of “new” flavors that were completely detached from the context of their roots. As craft brewing revved up, beer geeks were tracking down what was to them, completely new flavors and styles from a diverse offering of upstart brewers, collecting tastes and flavors like kids snatching up new cards or action figures. The fact that you could live in California or Pennsylvania, Oregon or Montana, New York or North Carolina and suddenly have access to nearly every beer style ever invented, from IPA to Belgian Strong Golden to Imperial Stout, Kolsch, Gruit and Doppelbock meant that you were actually getting access to a greater variety of beer than was available to drinkers living in Belgium or Germany or England, who were limited to the regional styles.
To be fair, America didn’t necessarily have beers that measured up to their inspirations. Self-proclaimed German or Czech-style lagers were more often than not a brewery’s attempt to have it both ways: calling back to Eastern European brewing traditions granted a certain cachet, but the actual product had more in common with a Budweiser than a Czechvar so that lifelong Coors and Miller drinkers could find something palatable on the draft list. Meanwhile, Belgian Tripels were usually fruity, boozy and sweet, missing the cleanliness of an authentic Belgian version, and obscure lager styles like Maibocks and Baltic Porters were being brewed using ale yeasts, sort of defeating the purpose of calling them that particular style.
But as more American brewers threw their hats into the ring (and their yeast into the fermenter) and transformed the IPA from a slightly less mild English ale into an aggressive, potent and flavorful brew so detached from its origins as to be a legitimately American creation, the American brewing landscape gained depth and complexity. All of a sudden, brewers were nailing German, Belgian and English style beers, thanks to increased access to ingredients, better and more easily available brewing science education, and a consistently growing, competitive and nurturing homebrewing community. Now, with just a little bit of effort in this country, you can find a Kolsch as good as any from Germany. A Flanders Red that could rival the best Belgian options. An English-style Porter that is note-for-note perfect. And every obscure style in between: Rauchbiers, Gruits, Roggenbier, Unblended Lambic, Berliner-Weisse, Gose, and Scotch Ale.
Just like with pizza and hot dogs, tacos and fried rice, you could find terrible and wonderful American iterations of foreign creations just about everywhere.
But then something weird happened. Brewers had climbed the mountain, ascended the highest peak, and there was no longer any great thrill in merely nailing the recipe to some other country’s best beer style. Now, it was time to create our own.
Dogfish Head was one of the first craft brewers to swerve from the pack and start throwing in unusual ingredients into their beers, whilst openly defying basic style categorization. Aging beers on obscure woods to pick up the flavor notes, throwing in grapes, apricots or unusual herbs, adding tea and juniper berries… Dogfish was doing weird shit at a time when everyone else was just trying to perfect an IPA or nail the Belgian Strong Dark using the same old, basic ingredients.
It was at this point that American craft brewing split into two schools: those who wanted to replicate, refine, and reminisce about the brewing past and those looking to chart the unknown future with experimentation and unorthodox ingredients and processes.
There are peanut butter beers now, s’more beers, mushroom beers, beers with more vegetables than a salad, beers that taste like cocktails. “Beer” was already an inadequate umbrella term to describe both an IPA and a Flanders Red, a Doppelbock and a Saison, a Barleywine and a Kolsch. But nowadays when you can drink a beer brewed with Minneola Tangelo and conditioned on over 100 lbs of Cherimoya, it begs the question, what does “beer” mean anymore? If you’re aging it in Chardonnay or Bourbon barrels, substituting barley malt for buckwheat, swapping out hops for fennel and anise, dosing it with brettanomyces and lactobacillus and carbonating it on Argon, is it still a beer?
The German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) would say no, but to be fair, that law has always been a load of BS. The Germans have turned a blind eye towards their own Hefeweizen, Gose, and Roggenbier
and Rauchbier, all of which clearly violate the rules of only being comprised of barley, water, yeast, and hops. And while “adjunct” is a dirty word for many brewing traditionalists, as it calls to mind Budweiser, Coors, or Miller’s use of corn or rice as a cost-saving alternative to barley, the Belgians have been playing with adjuncts like coriander, wheat, Belgian candi sugar, cherries, raspberries and peaches for hundreds of years before Adolphus Busch was born. Moreover, hopped beers are a relatively recent addition in the history of brewing when you consider that thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations depended on heather, yarrow, mugwort and horehound to flavor and preserve their brew.
If it’s not obvious enough already, I’m of two minds on this topic. On the one hand, I’d hate to see the old guard of brewing traditions die out. Classic styles like Pilsners, Stouts, Hefeweizens, and Belgian Dubbels don’t need the fruit or vegetable of the month added to them; they don’t need to be aged on wood or dosed with bacteria or blended with ciders and meads. These are styles that have earned the right to be brewed as authentically and with as much respect and consideration for traditional practices as is possible in the modern world.
On the other hand, I never knew I wanted a Belgian Black Ale brewed with golden raisins, honey and mustard seed aged in French Oak Barrels and dosed with two varieties of brettanomyces until I tried Trinity Brewing’s Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta’.
Clearly, a beer like Gangsta’ doesn’t even really fit a beer style category. The idea of a Belgian Black Ale is even a misnomer. There are American Black Ales and there are Belgian Strong Darks, but making an American Black Ale with a Belgian yeast strain is essentially inventing a new beer style, and that’s before we talk about mustard seed and brettanomyces and French Oak barrels.
The closest style you could probably identify with such a beer would be “Fruited Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer” from the Great American Beer Festival’s Style Guidelines, but the description for that style is so open-ended and general, that you could be judging beers that taste wildly different from one another. You can apply the old cliche warning about “comparing apples to oranges” literally in this case, with different fruits obviously evoking completely different flavors; but then imagine how different liquor barrels or strains of sour bacteria might similarly alter the final product dramatically.
Meanwhile, in comparison, the differences between a Kolsch, a Helles, and a Pilsner starts to seem inconsequential. Ditto an ESB, Mild, and English Pale Ale, or a Stout and a Porter. How can you still claim beer styles matter when you have categories so broad that an Apricot/Peach/Chardonnay/Brett beer could compete against a Raspberry/Blueberry/Gin/Lactobacillus beer?
Essentially, these new experimental beers not only call into question the legitimacy of any beer style, but also that entire school of thought that celebrates consistency, discipline, tradition, and subtlety. We have no way of accurately judging beers that have no antecedent, for which there is no prior context against which to fairly judge them. Our tastebuds cannot be conditioned to expect anything so as to be able to compare and contrast, because they are too busy being assaulted by a myriad of unfamiliar flavors that results in less of an appreciation of particular craft and more of a kind of dazed and discombobulated shock. Experiencing these kinds of beers is more about emotion than it is about logic.
And perhaps that’s the point.
Perhaps the next step in beer is one in which the old style guidelines die off, so that when we sit down to drink a beer, it’s not about showing off with our handy string of adjectives to describe mouthfeel and aroma and flavor profiles; instead it’s about drinking something that you can’t even process. And when a friends asks what it tastes like, the only response is a dazed kind of awe, and an offer to just shut up and try the beer for themselves.
Ironically, as pretentious as these experimental beers sound on paper, perhaps they are designed to transform beer back into more of an actual experience rather than just an analytical ticking off of boxes. These are the beers that are so confounding, so head-scratching, you don’t even bother to try to figure out the magic trick; you’re just along for the ride. You want to believe.
If there’s any real pattern to American innovation in just about any field, it’s that we see something that someone else has done and we love it, but we’re pretty damn sure we can do it even better. With beer, we’re getting to the point where the Great American Beer Style Guidelines list this disclaimer after just about every “American-style” beer: “To allow for accurate judging the brewer must provide information listing a classic or other style of base beer being elaborated upon, and any other ingredients or processes used. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.”
Implicit in this statement is the acknowledgement that American brewers aren’t going to stick to style guidelines. They’re going to wander around, they’re going to have fun and draw outside the lines. Call it artistic license, creativity, or call it arrogance, but most American brewers aren’t attempting to be the most disciplined brewers in the world, their craft is not as honed, their abilities not as attuned or as exacting as their foreign brewer brethren. But they do have crazy, brilliant, confounding, and bizarre ideas, and who among us isn’t at least a little curious to taste the result of those ideas?
But that question also begs another one, and it’s the question that started this whole, ridiculously lengthy diatribe: is it possible to “jump the shark” on the craft beer movement by straying too far from the original beer styles and by conditioning beer geeks to stronger and increasingly more unusual tasting beers?
Speaking for myself, I can admit to a certain amount of “palate fatigue,” of having climbed Beer Geek Mountain and upon reaching its peak, deciding to descend and enjoy the view from the bottom with a pint of Pilsner. American brewers hammer away at our defenses with increasingly more potent and flavorful brew, and when you are confronted with only that all of the time, there is a relief to be found in the opposite, in something that is subtle and uncomplicated, refreshing and gentle.
The influx of lighter bodied and lower alcohol India Session Ales is clearly a response to the overabundance for many years of Imperial IPAs. I’ve also noticed more brewers trying their hand at German light lager styles and “pre-prohibition” style lagers after decades of craft brewers who wouldn’t consider touching a lager, both out of fear of being associated with Budweiser-ish flavors and out of practical consideration, since lagers take longer to condition than ales.
I think there’s a balance to be found between the extreme and the everyday, between classic and innovative, between past and future. While strict adherence to beer styles is clearly on the way out, if the door hasn’t already been shut on it completely, the ability of craft brewers to be able to offer easy drinking alternatives to their experimental efforts will keep the craft beer world open to a larger, broader audience and serve as a gateway to their more complex offerings.
The greatest danger for craft brewers is getting so caught up in gimmick and experimental beer ideas that they forget what has primarily contributed to the rise of the craft beer movement: quality ingredients, skilled and consistent brewing techniques and practices, and the ability to accurately replicate classic beer styles before wandering off in the opposite direction. The day that craft beer only appeals to people looking for barrel-aged Imperial Stouts, aggressive Imperial IPAs, and puckering sour ales is the day that its potential future beyond the niche is officially doomed.
We’ve come so far so quickly. Let’s not be afraid to look back every once in awhile and take stock of what got us here.